23 Mar 2003: Interview: Two Oscar wins don’t guarantee future success. Just ask Roberto Benigni, whose Pinocchio has been savaged by the critics.

Los Angeles, March 1999. The last Academy Awards of the last century. Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, Nick Nolte and Ed Norton sit in the auditorium anxiously waiting to hear their names announced as Best Actor. This time, however, everyone is in for a surprise. For the first time in the history of the awards, the Oscar goes to an actor in a foreign language film. Hearing his name, Roberto Benigni stands up, makes it to the stage and announces to a billion viewers: ‘This is a terrible mistake. I used up all my English.’

  1. Pinocchio 964
  2. Production year: 1998
  3. Country: Rest of the world
  4. Runtime: 97 mins
  5. Directors: Shojin Fukui
  6. More on this film

Not only did Benigni win Best Actor, he had also started off the evening by accepting Best Foreign Language Film for Life is Beautiful, the film he wrote, directed and starred in. With Sophia Loren waiting to present the Oscar with tears in her eyes, the irrepressible Benigni stood on the back of the audience’s seats and said, in heavily accented, idiosyncratic English: ‘I feel like, really, to dive in this ocean of generosity… it is a hailstorm of kindness.’

It seemed this crazy 51-year-old Italian actor had outperformed even Cuba Gooding Jr who the previous year had accepted his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire by shouting: ‘I love you! Tom Cruise! I love you, brother! I love you!’ It may even have proved to be more memorable than De Niro accepting his Best Actor award for Raging Bull and thanking Jake La Motta, ‘even though he’s suing us’.

While Benigni was entertaining America, his home town of Vergaio in Tuscany was crowded with 2,000 people celebrating their local hero. Luigi and Isolina Benigni, his 80-year-old parents, didn’t make it to 3am to see their son receive his Oscars, but the next day his father admitted they ‘cried like babies’. It must have been particularly emotional for Luigi, who was not only seeing his son become one of Italy’s most successful actors, but whose experiences in a German labour camp in the Second World War inspired Life is Beautiful.

Before the success of Life is Beautiful, which took more than $55 million at the US box office and grossed more than $200m around the world, Benigni had acted in almost two dozen Italian films and had directed almost a dozen. Yet he was relatively unknown in America, having chosen to appear only in left-field movies such as Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law. Life Is Beautiful drew some criticism for being flippant about the Holocaust, but it also made Benigni an instant star in America.

So why has Pinocchio, Benigni’s new film which he directed and in which he also stars, become the most successful film released in Italy last year but failed to make even the final five in the Best Foreign Film category at this year’s Academy Awards despite being Italy’s nomination? And why the hesitancy to release it in this country?

Rome, January 2003. A ridiculously smart new hotel in the city centre. Waiting to meet Benigni, his American agent hands over an article from the Chicago Reader entitled ‘How Benigni’s Pinocchio wound up as one of the year’s worst’. She is smiling but serious. ‘He would like you to read this first.’ The opening sentence is to the point: ‘The worst movie I saw all year was the dubbed and recut version of Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio. Yet I could easily have placed Benigni’s subtitled original in my top 50, if not top 40.’

Pinocchio is a very Italian fairytale, still as central to childhood reading as Peter Pan once was here. Pinocchio was written by the Tuscany-born Carlo Collodi in 1883, and its characters have become part of the Italian psyche; as Benigni later points out, when two people are smart but cunning, they are referred as ‘il gatto e la volpe’, the cat and the wolf who cheat Pinocchio out of his money.

At around £30m, Benigni’s Pinocchio is the most expensive Italian film ever made. Despite a mixed response from the critics, it broke all box-office records in its opening week in Italy and has gone on to generate 26m euros there. Yet its international downfall may not simply come with dubbing or cutting but with the very fact that this is an Italian story for an Italian audience willing to forgive their Oscar winner any indulgence. For anyone else, it is a spirited, sometimes funny film which may be too dark for young children and too simplistic for adults. Although picked up by Buena Vista in this country, the company is still deliberating whether to release it.

The allocated time for the interview approaches; can I expect Benigni to be defensive, edgy, wary? Finally, I am led to his suite. He balances on the edge of the sofa, drinking an espresso and smoking. He appears to be dressed for a film role: an old-fashioned brown velvet suit, a vibrant, plum-coloured shirt and black shoes. His hair is noticeably black, his glasses modern, his wedding ring silver (his wife and muse, the actor Nicoletta Braschi, regularly costars in his films, including Pinocchio, and is giving interviews in another suite).

He leaps to his feet, apologises for smoking, although this is Italy and not California, offers a hand, smiles and sinks back into the sofa. He appears to be relaxed, content. He sees the Chicago Reader review in my hand and raises an eyebrow.

‘It’s a pity, yes. I begged Miramax to let me release the original Pinocchio with subtitles but they wouldn’t listen. Now the original is going to come out in America, but the critics have already seen the dubbed version; most of them were violently against it and the damage is done. I’m so in love with this movie, it’s really broken my heart.’ Unable to maintain his seriousness, he beats his heart with his fist, his Tuscan accent becoming thicker. ‘I am like St Sebastian, almost killed, but not quite.’

Pinocchio has been part of Benigni’s life as long as he can remember. As a child growing up in a poor Tuscan household in the Fifties with three sisters, he was nicknamed ‘Pinocchietto’ (little Pinocchio) by his mother, not only because Collodi was Tuscan, but also due to his disobedience. Later, when he started appearing on TV, the nickname stuck simply because he was the first Tuscan comedian. ‘It may sound strange, but it’s true,’ Benigni explains. ‘Italian comedians have traditionally made people laugh by talking in dialect, especially Neapolitan and Sicilian. In Tuscany, there is no dialect because [and here he laughs at his mock pomposity] we speak the official language, the language of Dante.’

After his first appearance on TV in the mid-Seventies at the age of 22, Benigni received an unexpected phone call from a new admirer. ‘This voice said, “Hi, is that Pinocchio? This is Federico Fellini”.’ The call led to a long friendship with the revered director. Before Fellini’s death in 1993, Benigni acted in one of his last films, The Voice of the Moon, and they often talked about making a version of Pinocchio. ‘Fellini considered it a sacred, divine book.’

Since his potential was recognised by Fellini almost 30 years ago, Benigni has become used to success, in his home country at least. Inspired by his heroes, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his gift is that of physical comic but he is clever and imaginative with language, too. He generated attention for years with his courageous attacks on sex, the church and politics; he still does political comedy, attacking Silvio Berlusconi at every opportunity (he is very funny on the Prime Minister’s obsessive control over his country: ‘There’s a comedian? Must be talking about him. At a wedding, he must be the groom; at a funeral, the dead body.’)

But Benigni’s real breakthrough came in the early Nineties when he made two successful comedies about mistaken identity. In Johnny Stecchino, Benigni took on the dual roles of a goofy bus driver and notorious Mafia mobster and managed to displace Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris as Italy’s most successful domestic box-office film.

In 1994’s The Monster, Benigni’s small-time conman wrongly suspected of being a sex-crazed serial killer, charmed Italy all over again. This time he not only directed, starred and co-wrote the film, he also made his producing debut. And it became the biggest-grossing Italian film ever. Until, of course, Life is Beautiful.

Benigni’s faux innocence, immense charm, childlike demeanour and anarchic sense of mischief have made him an Italian institution. His success led to comparisons with Totò, the father of all Italian comics. It is a compliment Benigni will only half-accept.

‘It’s a huge honour but I really believe that Totò is the only great Italian comic. Humour is a bit like eroticism and funniness is like pornography… I really envy Oscar Wilde and Groucho Marx, who I love madly, and I always ask myself: how did they do it? It is easy to remember the aphorisms of Groucho Marx; you can write them down. But Totò: he didn’t even have to make witty remarks” “We are men and corporals” is not a witty remark.’

Like Chaplin and Keaton, Totò’s skill was to make anything he said funny. Despite his modesty, Benigni has much the same power. He can make a room full of people laugh without uttering a word. ‘To make people really laugh, you must use both your body and words. Having said that, at the Oscars I had no language, so I used my body. It is a universal language.’

I ask how clearly he remembers that night. He smiles. ‘I remember every last detail. It was an extraordinary night, the most incredible feeling – as far as work goes. I’m not talking about my private life here; fortunately, I have had bigger emotions.’ His eyes are sparkling. ‘I was not only the first person to win a Best Actor award for a foreign-language film but no one since Laurence Olivier has directed themselves in an Oscar-winning performance.’

He talks without a hint of arrogance, as though he can hardly believe what happened; his childish enthusiasm belies his age. His words come tumbling out. ‘I hadn’t prepared anything. It was all improvised. I wanted to fly naked.’ He is up on his feet, tugging at his shirt and his trousers. ‘I wanted to take all my clothes off. When Sophia Loren said my name, I had this overwhelming desire to undress.’ He is jumping up and down. ‘I wanted to make love to everyone.’ He sits down again, composes himself. ‘Yes, it was a good night.’

I wonder if he will ever match that night. He shrugs. ‘Why not? When you’re flying, your journey never finishes. The most important thing is to continue to be yourself. The day after the Oscars, you have to get on with your life. To be honest and true to yourself. I could have made a small film and kept all the money from Life is Beautiful. Instead, I spent more money than I had on Pinocchio, a very risky film.

‘I also had offers from America, but chose to make an Italian film in Italy. With Italian money and Italian actors.’ He smiles, reaches for a cigarette. ‘Basically, I decided to please myself.’